David Levithan is out and proud, and so too is his young adult (YA) fiction. When asked at the 2012 National Book Festival why he likes to write so many queer books, after initially responding, "Besides being a big ol' gay boy?," he went on to explain the progression of queer YA fiction throughout the past decades as going from "death, then death of your dog -- dogs would die when you were making out with somebody in the 70s... -- and then there was misery. Then we'd gotten to the point where... most of the queer characters the only status they were given were like, 'Ok, you can be an outsider, and maybe you can find another outsider, and you guys can hold hands,' and that's the end of the book." He wanted to change that, saying, "Obviously because I'm gay, and I interact with queer kids all the time, I'm constantly trying to find different angles to tell their stories because there aren't enough of us telling those stories."
Starting in high school, Levithan would write short stories for his family and friends as Valentine's Day presents. He even has a book of such short stories published: How They Met. If you pick up a copy, try to read the first short story in it -- "Starbucks Boy" -- in an actual coffee shop; I did, and I found certain statements the main character makes very accurate at the moment I was sitting there reading. Sometimes though, what would begin as one of these short stories would develop into a longer story, such as his first novel, Boy Meets Boy, first published in 2003.
In the tenth anniversary edition of Boy Meets Boy, Levithan talks about how he chose the title particularly because he wanted the book to be an out book. He wanted it so if you walked passed the book and only saw the cover, you would know that it was a story about two boys falling in love. He recognized that the power in being out as a gay person so too could apply to a book being openly about being gay. And Boy Meets Boy isn't just gay, it's utopically gay, and because of that it's been criticized as being unrealistic. Levithan addresses that in the tenth anniversary edition. "My response is usually something along the lines of 'So what?' And 'Doesn't that make you want to figure out why it's not realistic – and why our world's not that way?' ...there's no reason this town can't exist. In fact, the people who live in this town exist -- millions of them. They just don't happen to all live in the same town."
That utopic quality of Boy Meets Boy makes it a joyful, uplifting read. There isn't as much agonizing over being closeted or coming out as can be typical for queer YA literature. The main character says he learned he was gay from his kindergarten teacher describing him on a report card as "definitely gay" and having "a very good sense of self." This part is apparently mostly autobiographical; Levithan says in his tenth anniversary edition's notes that his kindergarten teacher really did tell his parents that he was gay, though it took him a while to realize it himself. In Boy Meets Boy there are more queer characters than non-queer ones. The high school football quarterback is also the homecoming queen and goes by the name Infinite Darlene. The boys lacrosse team is described as having only three straight members. And the main character says he was the first openly gay third grade class president, having run with the slogan "Vote for me... I'm gay!"
Boy Meets Boy began from two points of inspiration. Levithan had a conversation with his "best friend's other best friend" about the differences they had in growing up gay. Levithan comes from a liberal family and never endured any turmoil over his sexuality, but his "best friend's other best friend" had a very conservative family and even went so far as to marry a woman in an attempt to not be gay. Levithan wanted to write a story for his "best friend's other best friend"'s teenage self, so queer youth who are having a rough time in real life could have a vision of how life could be, how it should be. The other point of inspiration was the Patty Griffin song "Tony," which is about a gay kid killing himself; Levithan says whenever he listens to that song he always wants to be able to change the end of it, and he wrote Boy Meets Boy as a way of doing so.
Since Boy Meets Boy, when not working as an editor for Scholastic, Levithan has written over a dozen other books. He has a history of co-writing YA fiction, the most well-known of which are Will Grayson, Will Grayson, written with John Green, and Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist, written with Rachel Cohn. Will Grayson, Will Grayson is about two characters, both of whom are named Will Grayson and one of whom is gay, and their respective individual stories and how the two characters lives eventually intersect. Nick And Norah's Infinite Playlist, which has been adapted into a film, is about a guy, the only straight guy in a queercore band, who, in an effort to deal with his ex-girlfriend approaching him in a club, asks a total stranger sitting next to him at the bar to pretend to be his girlfriend for the next few minutes, after which they end up having a long, winding night of growing interest in one another. Both Will Grayson, Will Grayson and Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist are told with chapters alternating back and forth between writers and between characters' perspectives.
The most unusual of Levithan's work is The Lover's Dictionary, which also began as a Valentine's Day gift story. It is the only book Levithan has done that is "about grown-ups." Though it's not "for grown-ups" he says, as he recognizes that teens read adult literature and adults read teen literature. The Lover's Dictionary tells the story of a relationship through little moments and thoughts presented as definitions to words. Some of the "definitions" are as short as a sentence or two, depicting just a little moment or thought, others are paragraphs or a couple of pages, detailing major events. Because of the format, the story is told out of order and some definitions depend upon the reader remembering previous definitions that at first read might not have revealed their greater significance.
As an example of how the words get defined, here's one of my favorites:
"I want you to spend the night," you said. And it was definitely your phrasing that ensured it. If you had said, "Let's have sex," or "Let's go to my place," or even, "I really want you," I'm not sure we would have gone quite as far as we did. But I loved the notion that the night was mine to spend, and I immediately decided to spend it on you.
Levithan's most recent book is Two Boys Kissing
, which was inspired by real life events. The characters of the book are not fictitious versions of real life people, but wholly created characters. One of the real life events was the story of two guys achieving a Guinness World Record for longest continual kiss. The other event was the suicide of Tyler Clementi, whose college was about a half-hour away from where the kissing record was achieved; Clementi killed himself in the wake of homophobic bullying only four days after the kissing event took place. Again, the book is only inspired by these events, it does not depict them. What it does depict is a series of interconnected queer YA relationships and experiences, all told through the form of disembodied observations of a Greek chorus of the spirits of gay men who died during the AIDS crisis. It is a book with no chapters, though there are blocks of empty space between the different characters' stories.
With the cover of Two Boys Kissing very openly depicting two boys kissing, the book has been challenged as inappropriate. Several months ago in Fauquier County, Virginia, one parent complained about the book being in the county's high school library, saying that the cover was a "public display of affection." As one person speaking in support of the book pointed out, if it had been a picture of a boy and a girl kissing, it would never face such criticism. To their credit, the review board voted unanimously to not remove the book from the library.
Levithan talks about similar negative reactions to Boy Meets Boy in the tenth anniversary edition, saying, "we have to be vigilant about preemptive challenges. That is to say – we know to fight for the freedom to read when a book is pulled from the shelf, but we also have to fight for the freedom to read when someone refuses to put the book on the shelf in the first place." Levithan sees the acceptance he writes becoming reality. "Why? Because, at the most basic level, what LGBT people are being asked (absurdly) is to prove that we are as much human beings as anyone else. We know this is true. And slowly but surely, other people are realizing it's true. By getting to know us. By talking to us. By hearing or reading our stories."
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